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The Last Housing Frontier

With Newhall Ranch project approved by the supervisors, the debate moves to what comes next for development in L.A. County's north.

June 02, 2003

When Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky cast the lone vote last week against Newhall Ranch, he knew it wouldn't stop the 20,885-home mega-development in the Santa Clarita Valley. But he hoped it would at least start public debate about what comes next for the county's northern -- and final -- housing frontier.

Such a debate couldn't be more timely. Next in line for county approval is an even larger project farther north. Tejon Ranch Co. wants to build 23,000 homes along the Tehachapi Mountains, near the top of the panoramic Grapevine between Los Angeles and Bakersfield. A giant cattle operation for 160 years, Tejon Ranch lies 60 miles from downtown L.A. Three years ago, its owners started hauling livestock to the auction block, figuring it was only a matter of time before the megalopolis sprawled that far.

In a region that considers a backyard barbecue to be a right, growth has long meant gobbling up virgin land. Even the homeowner associations' slow-growth movement of the 1980s merely pushed development farther out by fighting off apartments in established neighborhoods.

His constituents' aversion to dense development prompted Yaroslavsky to support Newhall Ranch in 1999. The deciding factor in last week's reversal was his realization that sprawl comes back to bite older neighborhoods, an epiphany crystallized in the recent fight over the Ventura Freeway. Residents of newer cities on the county's western edge lobbied to ease their commutes by expanding the clogged freeway, even if it meant tearing down 1,000 houses in Sherman Oaks and other older neighborhoods. Just over the Ventura County line, the still-contested, 3,050-home Ahmanson Ranch would add yet more traffic.

Newhall Ranch, to its credit, will include business parks to keep jobs close by and reduce freeway commuting. The developers, however, go too far in saying most residents will work there. No one can guarantee or control that, or ensure that the local jobs will pay enough for workers to buy $700,000 houses.

With Southern California projected to grow by 6 million people in the next 30 years, some civic leaders say that development can't be stopped, just managed. They cite developers who trade preservation of open space for zoning approvals. But governments can do more.

Controversy over the Newhall development has given rise to one new tool -- a state law that forbids local governments from approving new housing tracts unless water agencies can meet the resulting water needs. And a bill now before the state Legislature would allow local governments to keep newly generated property taxes rather than depending entirely on sales taxes. Los Angeles could give up chasing big-box stores and support the kind of denser, mixed housing and job development that's needed, especially along public transportation routes. Smart growth may yet come to mean a more urban, more pedestrian lifestyle -- and a shorter commute.

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